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Maybe Fewer People Should go to College

Maybe they'd be happier learning a trade. ... Or maybe nothing will change.


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There's serious talk once again in policy circles about whether too many Americans are going to college. For example, in introducing a roundtable on the subject late last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education (known as the bible in the field) noted a "growing sentiment that college may not be the best option for all students" in light of students' rising indebtedness and the increasing number of them "failing to graduate in four years."

In response to sentiments of that sort, might I ask for a show of hands?

How many of you would be pleased if your son or daughter chose not to enroll in a four-year institution of higher learning but opted instead for the kind of place that advertises on cable at 2 a.m.?

Actually, the question needs to be aimed at more-affluent parents, upper-middle-income and above. How many of you would be happy -- honestly happy -- if your child bypassed St. Olaf, the University of Minnesota or St. Cloud State in order to attend what some might describe as a trade school?

Hands? Hands? I don't see too many hands out there.

And that, in large measure, is precisely why large numbers of young men and women won't be abandoning four-year institutions anytime soon. If reasonably well-to-do families have little interest in having their children forget about the "academy," the only way such enrollments could fall would be if the sons and daughters of less-financially fortunate (and therefore disproportionately minority) mothers and fathers chose to go elsewhere, if they opted to continue their formal educations at all.

We'd be left with a situation in which a societal aim (some might say "sacrifice") would be shouldered extra heavily by nonrich and nonwhite citizens. Suffice it to say, this is neither a politically nor morally attractive prospect.

All this is the case, I might add, even though scaling down the number of young people in college is in many ways an intrinsically sound and even benevolent idea.  

One reason is that significant numbers of young people sign up for college not because they deep-down want to go, but because they think they must in order to have a good career. Far more than occasionally, such folks wind up bored, dropped out, flunked out and financially in arrears.

Does this pattern frequently play itself out because many jobs advertised as requiring college degrees really, in substantive truth, don't? Of course -- though not too many breaths ought to be held too terribly long waiting for substantial changes in how such jobs are framed and filled.

Many young people look more excitedly on becoming skilled and successful craftsmen and artisans rather than underemployed and underpaid baccalaureate winners. They would be more peacefully primed to pursue their actual dreams if college work wasn't almost always viewed as an inherently higher educational calling than other kinds of postsecondary training. But again, don't expect major cultural adjustments anytime soon.

The current debate, such as it is, has several roots in addition to growing debt loads, including uncommonly tight university budgets caused in big part by uncommonly big shortfalls faced by state governments expected to help pay for nearly everything.

Locally, expect to read and hear more about matters like these over the next year as the University of Minnesota reviews its mission and operations during the recruitment of a new president to succeed the retiring Bob Bruininks.

A further and more sensitive (read: hazardous) line of thinking has to do with whether only 10 or 20 percent or so of Americans are intellectually equipped to do truly rigorous and legitimate college work in the first place.

This is not as antediluvian or nasty a contention as it might sound, given that only somewhat more than a third of Americans ever wind up completing four-year degrees -- and of wildly varying quality. It's also a view given a share of credence by the immense numbers of incoming freshmen in need of remedial work in the very basics of reading, writing and mathematics -- or, in many instances, arithmetic.

To all of which, mystified and angry opponents might powerfully respond: Hey, the United States used to lead the world in college participation rates, but now we're no longer even close to the top. With China, India and other countries threatening to eat our economic lunches, dinners and maybe desserts, is this really a good time for conceding even more educational ground?

Obviously not, making it essential that any recommendation about fewer Americans going to college be contingent on more Americans getting some kind of postsecondary training, including in the military. College is not for everyone, but more than high school needs to be -- though the fact that fewer than three-quarters of all American kids currently finish high school on time is correctly understood as another profoundly incapacitating problem.

Strictly and coolly analytically, I agree with critics who contend that universities and four-year colleges are oversubscribed, for no other reason than that much of what passes for college-level work doesn't meet that standard.

Nevertheless, the most compelling premise I start from is fundamentally personal. I simply can't imagine my life, as gaudy as it sounds, minus my own undergraduate and graduate experiences stretching back almost 45 years. If higher education has been so important to me, who am I to suggest that others, regardless of station in this nation of second and third chances, shouldn't have equal encouragement to give it at least a go?

This is especially the case since I was a lousy high school student. But -- keenly germane to the current debate -- I gained my academic bearings by beginning not at some lofty or expensive place, but at a community college.

Just think of how several of the problems cited above might be eased if more young people opted for similarly lower-key starts.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune on August 15, 2010. 

Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted.